Literary Production Numbers

British literary critic James Wood reviews The Oxford English Literary History, Vol. XII: 1960-2000: The Last of England?, and sharpens his knives:

Mind you, Stevenson’s three lines on A House for Mr Biswas make one glad that the rules [of the Oxford guide regarding what constitutes an “English” writer] allowed him to venture no further: “The novel uses its broad range of characters and their conflicts for comic effect, but they also offer extended insight into a complex, multiracial society, both hopeful and fearful for its future.” That sentence might be a Rorschach test: if you find nothing much the matter with it, you are an unsaved academic. Apart from the inconvenience of being largely untrue — there are almost no non-Indians of any significance in the novel — and its grating habit of sounding less like criticism than an AGM report, it is almost morally offensive that this should be the only description of that marvellous novel.

Lightness? Wait.

When I went through a significant break-up in college (1989-1993), I would watch Miller’s Crossing and re-read The Unbearable Lightness of Being. When I had my big split two years ago, I went back to Kundera’s book. It meant a lot of different things to me in my 30s. The things that appeal in college years seem laughable when you’ve lived in (some semblance of) the real world for a while.

John Banville recently returned to the book after 20 years.

In the MausHaus

I just landed in Orlando for the Parenteral Drug Association‘s annual meeting. It was my seventh flight this year. Fortunately, I don’t have any air-travel till June, when I head out to the BIO show. For some reason (possibly the coffee I had before the flight), I was pretty wired into the turbulence we had on takeoff and initial ascent.

But I mellowed out after a while, read most of Radiance, by Carter Scholz, and listened to the Pod for a little while. Boy, with Radiance, 100 Suns, and Intelligence Wars, you’d think I’ve started to pick up on a trend.

Spring Fling

[There used to be a slideshow that accompanied this post, but my old ISP went down and took all my files with it. Stupidly, I never backed that stuff up. Oh, well. Them’s the virtual memories. . .]

Sitting on the PATH train into NYC from Hoboken, I look into my overnight bag and see a bottle of Tanqueray and a full prescription of Vicodin. I thought, “Wow, if I had some grass and a bottle of ether, I’d feel like Hunter S. Thompson’s intern!”

Friday was, to put it mildly, an eventful episode of The Gil Show. I had the day off from work (thanks, Christendom), but was suffering pretty mightily from an gum infection around one of my wisdom teeth. It’d been going on since Monday, but I was too macho/stupid to go to a dentist (there are two about 20 feet from my apartment). So, by Friday morning, I was suffering insanely from this pain, thinking, “Y’know, Gil, this is how They got David Lindsay.” Because that’s how I think, alright?

Went to one of the dentists at 9am. She got me an antibiotic prescription and told me to get back to her office at 1pm, so she could cut out a fold of my gum and clean out the area. I did so, and got to have Fun with Novocain, which I haven’t experienced since around 1987 (I don’t go to dentists much, unless it’s an emergency). Then she handed me a prescription for Vicodin. Before the minisurgery, I told her, “I plan on drinking pretty abusively this evening; is that a problem?”

“No. But don’t take the Vicodin if you’re drinking. And don’t drive or operate any heavy machinery when you’re taking the Vicodin.”

“Not even my forklift?” I asked, despite not owning one.

I was a bit worried about missing out on the evening, in which I planned to go to NYC to:

a) see one of my favorite singers perform;

b) attend my friends’ Spring Fling party (despite the 40 degree weather); and

c) get absolutely annihilated on gin & tonic and have some fun conversation with people I don’t get to see often.

Even though it wasn’t a huge amount of dental work, I was pretty wiped out by late afternoon. Didn’t feel like trying to eat anything solid, so I had an Atkins strawberry shake. Problem was, my mouth was still numb from the Novocain, which led to that curious sensation of drinking something and having no idea how much was in my mouth. It was pretty freaky.

The numbness wore off while I was driving to Hoboken, where I took the aforementioned PATH train to the 14th St. stop. It was a block away from the home of my friends who were throwing the party. I wanted to drop off the overnight bag (with “springtime clothing” for later in the evening) before getting some dinner and listening to some music.

Walked from their place on 13th St. to Crosby St., a block into SoHo. Not having eaten, I began getting some pretty intense chills, which worried me a bit, given that it was only 6:30 and I was planning for a pretty long night. The venue for the gig wasn’t open when I got there, so I went to an Australian restaurant called Eight Mile Creek, and ordered the soup of the day. It took awhile, so I ordered up a G&T, which meant I probably wouldn’t be having any Vicodin that evening.

Thing is, without the Novocain, I was back to experiencing some pretty intense pain in my mouth and my right ear. It hurt terribly to open my mouth much, and yawning was agony. Not fun. So I slurped my soup pretty ravenously, not having eaten for about 10-11 hours. Drank my gin. Saw Michael Imperioli walk down the sidewalk (because it’s New York, that’s why).

After that, I headed over to the gig, which was at a used bookstore that functions as a fundraiser for homeless people with AIDS. Do you call them AIDS patients? AIDS sufferers? AIDS victims? Every term carries a certain set of connotations, and I’m not sure which ones are inappropriate. I don’t personally know anyone with AIDS, although I recently published one of Samuel Delany’s novels on the subject (as well as a collection of his letters from 1984, a time when AIDS was still pretty much unidentified and wreaking havoc in parts of the queer community).

The gig was a triple-bill, but I was only there to see the first performer, a singer named Lori Carson. I first heard Lori’s singing back in 1994, when I lived in Annapolis and WHFS was a great indy (or Alter Native) radio station. She was with a band called the Golden Palominos, a rotating lineup sorta thing, led by a guy with the great name of Anton Fier. She sang on two GP records (which I consider two of the greatest get-it-on albums of all time, if you’re into a techo-rock-sex-funk vibe), then went off to do solo records. I have a tough time describing her voice, so let’s let these guys do it instead:

“…a super-high range that gives the effect of a young girl on helium…”

“…breathy, delicate vocals…”

“…a rawness beneath its soprano highs that make her songs resonate and tremble — she’s an unaffected singer who sounds like the bitter kid sister Joni Mitchell never had…”

The bookstore was SRO by the time I arrived. But the caf” area was open, and they were serving soup, which made me happy, since I was still afraid to risk solid food. So I noshed, bantered with a couple of women who were in a songwriting workshop that Lori Carson run out near her place in Long Island, and was given a second-row seat when the organizers decided to lift the “reserved” tags from those seats.

One thing about Lori Carson, and I don’t mean it in any looks-biased way, is that she photographs REALLY well, and doesn’t look as good in person. The proof of this is the cover of “Everything I Touch Runs Wild,” which has some pretty glamorous photography. In the flesh, she’s much earthier, though still strangely beautiful. I saw her play a few years ago at some music festival sponsored by Intel (ha-HA! No link for you!). Only about a dozen people came that night. Probably about 30-40 people at gig Friday (although some may”ve been there for the other acts).

She played a stylish-looking electric guitar, accompanied by an acoustic guitarist named Paul Pimsler. They only had about half an hour to play, so she only got in 6 or 7 songs. Most were recent, quiet, acoustic folk tunes. But she also played two older pieces: the title song to her second album, “Where It Goes,” and the very first song I ever heard her sing, “Little Suicides.”

I love certain pieces of art in a way that I don’t really understand. I think it might border on nostalgia (not a joy, but a having had joy). It was only in January, when I spent my birthday wandering through the Frick and the Met, staring at works by Rembrandt, that I started examining this feeling. A particular painting at the Frick, a self-portrait, caught me off guard. I was elated, looking at it, but the feeling more than just that of seeing a beautiful painting. It was like seeing an old friend, and perhaps it reflected the feeling of who I was in that moment of seeing Rembrandt the first time (the first Rembrandt picture I remember seeing (except for that cigar box one) was a philosopher meditating, on the cover of Gershom Scholem’s book on Kabbalah (not this edition, but a remaindered one that I bought years ago)). I’m not sure how to characterize that peculiar joy.

But I felt something similar when Lori started playing “Little Suicides” that night. “It happens in the smallest ways / It happens all the time . . .” she sang, and I was just transported, shedding years, remembering joy. (That last phrase puts me in mind of the closing lines from one of my favorite movies, where the narrator asks, “Is a memory something you have, or something you’ve lost?”)

The other old tune, “Where It Goes,” always made me think of a girl from college whom I knew as my One True Ex (you’ll have to find her tree in this forest). Our relationship, even when we were both involved with others long-term, was a strange affair. It was like a tango in which one of the partners is absent. For most of a decade, we continued to dance without the other. By the time we finally met again, we’d each become so familiar with our own steps that the other one seemed alien to us. The realities of who we’d become were not only superfluous to our dream-lives, they were inimical. And so we rapidly crumbled.

(Also, she was batshit and petty, and the last time we spent together was absolutely misery-inducing.)

But I thought of our old feelings while Lori sang, “I don’t know where it comes from / I don’t know where it goes / But clearly it’s going, gone / It’s time to let it / Time to move on…”

Then Lori was done singing, and I left for the party. I should write more about that, but the details are already a little vague (and somewhat boring). The things to know are:

a) I stuck with Tanqueray and tonic, eschewing the Vicodin;

b) One of my best friends came (at my invite), met people, and got hit on;

c) I impressed a girl by being able to discuss Churchland’s emergent principles of consciousness while personally bordering on unconsciousness;

d) I spent time in the company of friends, which always brings me joy;

e) I spoke the words, “Dude, I couldn’t stand up right now if you paid me”;

f) I put on a pair of bunny ears and tried to make a cartoony expression that REALLY didn’t photograph well; and

g) I got back to my friend’s place at 4am, crashed on her spare mattress, woke up at 7am, and decided to head back to NJ so I could sleep in my own bed.

And now the weekend is over and I’m trying to write an editorial for my magazine where I compare China’s coverup of SARS to the T-virus in Resident Evil. I’ll letcha know how it goes.

Boil Gas

Last night, I went to the 92nd St. Y for a literary reading. Well, half of a literary reading. The writer I went there to meet was William Gass, one of the best writers in America (and therefore, cynically speaking, one of the least read). Mr. Gass and I had spoken a few times before, to discuss the projects Voyant was working on. I asked him for an introduction to The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests (since he and Paul West are friends, I thought he might offer to help us out), but he demurred, saying he was “introduction-ed out.” When it came time get blurbs for the book, Mr. Gass was suffering health problems and wasn’t able to help us out.

It was gratifying to see (okay: hear) him read last night. The selection was from a new novel. Referring to the labor that went into his previous novel, The Tunnel, he remarked, “I hope this one won’t take me 26 years to finish.” It was a chapter called “The Inhumanity Museum,” and it detailed the contents of his lead character’s top-floor rooms, in the home he shares with his elderly mother. The character, a music professor at an Ohio college, has accumulated newspaper clippings of all manner of human atrocities, in scrapbooks, pinned to walls, hanging from carefully placed strips of flypaper, “like niggers strung up on lampposts to teach someone a lesson.” At one point, reading a chronological section from the clippings, Mr. Gass broke from the reading and invited us to insert our own present-day atrocities. He chose one from a Feb. 15 newspaper, mentioning how several vials of smallpox were retained in labs, after the disease had been destroyed in the wild. Activists insisted on not killing the remaining samples, so as not to knowingly make any species on earth extinct.

The reading (35 minutes or so) was astonishing. The motif of the work was that the lead character’s fear that the world would end had been replaced by the fear that the world would live. Mr. Gass pressed utterly beautiful sentences into the service of a character’s unremitting hatred. I was reminded of his Paris Review interview from the late 1977, where he said,

“What is psychologically best for a writer is what produces his best work. I suspect that in order for me to produce my best work I have to be angry. At least I find that easy. I am angry all the time . . . My work proceeds almost always from a sense of aggression. And usually I am in my best working mood when I am, on the page, very combative, very hostile. That’s true even when I write praise, as is often the case . . . I also take considerable pleasure in giving obnoxious ideas the best expression I can.”

The articulation Mr. Gass brought to the character’s rage was sharply contrasted by the evening’s other reader, T. Coraghessan Boyle, who treated the upper east side audience like a drinking crowd at a comedy club. Mr. Boyle strode to the podium in black Tommy Hilfiger sweatpants and red Chuck Taylors, and tried to “warm us up” with witty banter, or a simulacra thereof.

Mr. Boyle proceeded to read a chapter from his new novel, Drop City, about a fictional commune in 1970. His reading was, to put it bluntly, atrocious. The sentences were leaden, serving only to tell the reader/listener “what happened next.” And what happened next is that the lead character gets the shits after shooting and cooking a deer. The audience found lines like “He needed toilet paper. NOW,” to be the heights of humor. During Mr. Gass’s reading, they only laughed during a section in which the narrator implores the rotting world to “fuck on,” beginning each paragraph with that sentiment. As though, in 2003, an old man saying “fuck” is cause for schoolyard titters.

Mr. Boyle’s reading went disastrously well. The audience ate him up, as though he was “the poet and prophet of our age” (fuck you, LA Times), rather than a second-rate screenwriter. Because that’s what his reading of Drop City was: a screenplay. There was nothing in the writing that needed to be written, rather than spoken. No interior life beyond the cardboard, easy sentiments of his commune-dwellers. Bad writing.

Problem is, most everyone was there to see him, not Mr. Gass. After the readings, there was a book signing/wine reception in the art gallery, where two lines formed. Mr. Gass’s line had perhaps 25 people, while more than a hundred waited to see Mr. Boyle. I got on Mr. Gass’s line, and found myself engaged in a strange conversation.

Two elderly women stood behind me, and one of them mentioned, “He seems so angry. I thought his reading would turn pleasant at some point, or that the character would find something good in the world.” Her companion clucked, and agreed that it had been rather depressing.

I turned to talk to them, and said, “Well, he’s fueled by rage. It’s inside a lot of what he’s written.”

One asked, “Has he written many books?”

I was puzzled. I wondered how two old women find themselves at a reading of William Gass, then actually get on line to talk to him, rather than just head home after hearing his beautifully angry writing, if they had no idea who he was or how much he’d written over the years. It turned out, of course, that there was a story. There always is, I guess.

One of the women brought the other for moral support (I didn’t get either of their names). Turns out that her daughter married Mr. Gass’s son many years ago. From what I gathered, they had two children (Mr. Gass’s grandkids), but there was a divorce (several, actually), and he had become estranged from that branch of the family. I’m not sure, but it may be that he never saw the grandchildren. But, the woman told me, “At the wedding, out of 150 people, he only saw fit to talk to me. He was so interesting to talk with, but I found it so odd that he wouldn’t talk to anyone else at the reception.”

She brought photographs of the grandchildren with her. “But I don’t know how he’s going to react to seeing them.”

“Hmm. Maybe I should go first,” I said, “just in case he flies into a rage and storms out of here.” They laughed, a bit nervously.

Eventually, I got to speak to Mr. Gass. He remembered me from our brief phone conversations, which I found gratifying, and said he”d be pleased to give me a blurb for The Immensity of the Here and Now. I gave him my card and some postcards from Voyant’s other books. He signed my copy of the first trade paperback edition of Omensetter’s Luck. I’m not particularly fixated on getting books signed, but I thought it”d be a good idea to come prepared. And I wasn’t going to carry The Tunnel with me, given the back pain that would have accompanied it.

Later, while I chatted with a woman whose brother brought her to the reading, the two old women came by. “He said he was happy to see me, and took the photos. He even wrote, ‘Thanks for the pictures of the grandkids, Bill Gass.'”

“He signed mine, ‘William H. Gass,'” I told her. “So that’s probably a friendly gesture on his part.”

“Do you think so?” She seemed happy, so I left the evening with a smile. Even though I was mightily pissed off at the legion of poseurs who had come to worship Captain Bullshit and his limp prose.

But I’m not bitter.

A Brush With Fame

Saturday was one BLEARY night in NYC, off gallivanting with my high school buddy Adam. Got back to his apartment around 3:45am, but not before stopping at a “street meat” food cart a block from his midtown apartment.

We met up with Debbie, another high school friend, who was, Adam informed me, Cindy Crawford’s personal trainer. We didn’t remember each other at all from Strath Haven, which may have been for the best. I only attended high school with them for a year (Mom & I moved down to Pennsylvania in 1988, going into my senior year of school), but seem to have more friends from that one year than I do from the 17 years I spent in New Jersey. There’s probably some significant reasons for that, which I’ll go into at a later date.

Earlier in the night, before meeting Adam at the 2nd Ave. Deli (ostensibly kosher, but open on Saturday; go figure), I walked over to St. Mark’s Book Shop, where I thought I’d browse, try to get some ideas for what I’m going to do with the Paul West book’s design. A short, balding, stocky man with sideburns walked past me and around the other side of the shelf I was browsing. I was pretty sure I recognized him, wrestled with the thought for a moment, and went over to confirm my suspicion.

“Mr. Shawn?” I asked.

“Yes?” he replied.

So there I was, standing in the presence of Wallace Shawn. Now, most people who can visually identify him don’t know his name. They probably see him and think of the two great character roles he’s played in the movies: the “That’s inconceivable!” guy from The Princess Bride, or geeky Mr. Hall in Clueless (which he also played in the TV version). Don’t get me wrong; both were fine movies, but I’m pretty sure hearing about those roles burns his ass. It’d irritate ME, if I had higher intentions than comedic bit-parts.

Which Mr. Shawn does. His father, after all, was William Shawn, a legendary editor at The New Yorker. And, beyond all the comedy roles, Wallace Shawn graduated Harvard and Oxford, wrote and starred in My Dinner with Andre, and translated Machiavelli. So rather than bring him down by citing his (gifted) comedic work, which mainly plays off of his cartoonish appearance, I said:

“I just wanted to let you know, The Designated Mourner may be one of my favorite plays ever.”

A smile brimmed his face. “Why, thank you,” he said.

We talked briefly, then I left the store. I thought about taking out my digital camera and snapping a shot of us in the store, but:

a) I didn’t want to draw too much attention to him; and

b) I would’ve had to crouch down pretty far to fit both of us in the frame.

I have several other bumping-into-celebrities stories that I’ll share sometime. The best one involves meeting demented redneck baseball pitcher John Rocker . . .

Who’s Next

Having run out of shelf space, I’ve been placing newly acquired books in a stack beneath my hall table. It’s my intent to read those titles before getting to work on any of the others that are already shelved in my apartment. The books in this “to read” pile are:

Gould’s Book of Fish – Richard Flanagan (in progress)
Rembrandt’s Eyes – Simon Schama (in progress)
Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archeology of the Minoan Myth – Joseph Alexander McGillivray (in progress)
Pattern Recognition – William Gibson
The Spooky Art – Norman Mailer
The Art of Happiness – The Dalai Lama
Master Class – Paul West
Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn
The Coast of Utopia – Tom Stoppard
I: Voyage
II: Shipwreck
III: Salvage
The Rush for Second Place – William Gaddis
Mendelssohn is on the Roof – Jiri Weil
Abe: Wrong for All the Right Reasons – Glenn Dakin
The Rainbow – DH Lawrence
Sons & Lovers – DH Lawrence
Cheops: A Cupboard for the Sun – Paul West
Graham Greene Omnibus
The Heart of the Matter
Stamboul Train
The Burnt-Out Case
The Third Man
The Quiet American
Loser Takes All
The Power and the Glory
Possession – A.S. Byatt
All Stories Are True – John Edgar Wideman
Nightwood – Djuna Barnes
Nova – Samuel R. Delany
The Encyclopedia of the Dead – Danilo Kis
Philip Roth & the Jews – Alan Cooper
Gothic – Richard Davenport-Hines
Little, Big – John Crowley
Underworld – Don DeLillo
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers

One thing to know about me is that I’m a man who qualifies virtually everything. So, to clarify one impression that I’m afraid this list of unread books might give, I’d like to make some points about the final two selections.

I don’t like Don DeLillo’s work in general. I think he’s overrated and tends to obfuscate as a replacement for having something to say. My opinion is somewhat mirrored by B.R. Myers in his Reader’s Manifesto, which was first published in the Atlantic Monthly.

I first tried reading Underworld shortly after it was released, a season that saw strong new works from a number of older writers (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and Normal Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son). I dropped the book after 30 pages, when it became evident to me that DeLillo’s writing was nowhere near the level of those other three authors. During an early passage, a man in the 1950s discourses about the Importance of baseball. I was stunned that a writer with such affection for the game, beginning what many felt to be his magnum opus, felt the need to try to tell the reader everything of importance about the sport, rather than finding a way to show it to us. I decided I had better things to do than subject myself to the rest of the book.

Taking that into account, I’m willing to give it another chance. I saw the book recently in the “to sell” box in my attic space. I thought about something Harold Bloom once wrote in The Western Canon, about several contemporary writers whom he most definitely did not think would reach canonical status. He wrote:

Robert Lowell and Philip Larkin are here [on this list of canonical writers] because I seem to be the only critic alive who regards them as over-esteemed, and so I am probably wrong and must assume that I am blinded by extra-aesthetic considerations, which I abhor and try to avoid.

In that spirit, I’m willing to give Underworld another chance.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is in the same boat. I picked up a paperback copy of the book in Heathrow during a business trip to Milan in the fall of 2000 (a journey that warrants another rambling entry in this blog). I read half the book during the trip, and was astonished at how boring it all was. Outside of a few genuinely touching or funny passages about the difficulties of a 20-something man raising his kid brother, the book was almost completely lifeless. The facile PoMo stance of the author also served to help me develop one of my more severe aesthetic critiques: my dislike of works that make middle-brow people feel smarter than they are. This is a refinement of a principle I used to refer to as the “lowest college denominator,” which I’ll expound on at length some other time.

Suffice to say, inclusion of smarty-pants postmodernist tricks and pre-emptive, but logically specious arguments to counter any critique of his work has placed Eggers firmly in my “lowest college denominator” segment.

But, again, I’m willing to give it a second shot, and I’ll see if I’m wrong.

If there’s any public clamor for such a thing, I’ll provide a link to a bibliography of everydarnbook I’ve read since 1989. I only recently (in the last two years) started writing annotations on those titles in the list, which makes for even more fun & excitement (if you lead a sad & boring life).